History Files


First World War

Sinking of the Lusitania

by Bill Purkayastha, 1 January 2009

It's May, 1915.

The Great War is on. Britain, France and Russia are facing Germany and Austria-Hungary. Britain - whose lifelines from its colonial empire stretch across the sea lanes - is desperately looking to bring in more allies, particularly the US, then neutral. Those sea lanes are threatened both by German surface raiders and more importantly by German submarines (U-boats).

In the Admiralty in London is the First Lord of the Admiralty (the equivalent to the Minister of the Navy), one Winston Churchill, someone whose name would become better known years later in different circumstances.

Churchill, who is half-American, has no compunctions about using questionable tactics to try and get the ships through the U-boat lines. One of his secret orders to the captains of the merchant ships is to fly the flags of neutral nations, especially American flags. Another is his order to merchant ship captains to ram any surfaced U-boat that cares to approach. And yet another order is the Q-ship programme: armed ships with hidden weaponry and sailors dressed in civilian clothing that are meant to attack any U-boat that surfaces and approaches, a war crime if there ever was one.

But why should any U-boat surface and approach a merchant ship? Well, this is 1915, and there are certain rules that submarines are supposed to observe. Submarines in this day and age are supposed to be submersible cruisers, and they're supposed to fight by Cruiser Rules.

And what are Cruiser Rules?

Briefly, this is what a U-boat that sees a merchant ship is supposed to do: it should surface and fire a shot across the bows of the ship from its deck gun (all the subs of the time carry a deck gun) as a signal for the ship to stop. It should then approach the ship, put a boarding party on it, search it, and if it's a neutral, let it go. If it's an enemy ship, it's the responsibility of the submarine to ensure the safety of the crew and passengers (if any) after which it can take the ship as a prize of war.

But how can anyone in his right mind expect any submarine to obey these rules? How can any sub skipper ensure the safety of possibly hundreds of crew and passengers, in the middle of the ocean of all places? If he takes the ship as a prize, what is he supposed to do with it? Abandon his sub and sail on the ship to the nearest friendly harbour?

Still, it's the law, and that's what the U-boat mostly does: it allows the crew to take to their lifeboats and then sinks the ship. But in order to do all that, it has to surface and approach the ship, trusting the ship to obey the rules as well.

These are the rules applying to unarmed ships. On the other hand, ships which are armed or escorted by armed ships have no right to such considerate treatment from cruisers or from submarines.

It should be obvious to anyone with sense that if the sub is afraid that any ship that it approaches might try to ram it, or open fire with hidden guns, it will not surface and make itself a target. And if it has reason to think that enemy ships are flying neutral flags, it might as well disregard the neutral flag and assume any ships it encounters are hostile.

How to involve the US?

What Mr Churchill has achieved, by his actions, is therefore to put at risk every ship and every sailor on those ships, even if they belong to neutral nations and are completely innocent of all involvement in the war. It is inconceivable that he does not know what he is doing.

As mentioned, the primary purpose behind all this is the desire of Mr Churchill to involve the US as a belligerent in the war on the side of Britain, and he is not particularly scrupulous about how he goes about it. He is helped by the officials in the administration of President Woodrow Wilson, who are about as pro-British as it is possible to get without openly declaring war on Germany. They know, because the Germans have showed them captured documents, all about the British orders to fly the American flag and to ram U-boats - but they do nothing about it.

Wilson, meanwhile, is quietly going about the job of "manufacturing consent" - working at changing the mindset of the neutralist American population towards involvement in a European war that is absolutely none of America's business. He knows that it's still far too early to go to war, because the spadework has to be done first, but he is busy doing it.

The Lusitania

RMS Lusitania - once the fastest ship to cross the Atlantic

View image

One way in which the Americans are helping Britain is by shipping quantities of munitions - contraband according to the laws of war - to Britain in the holds of merchant ships. Since these munitions are contraband, they are shipped under various cover names, like "fur", for instance, or "lard", or "cheese", and are dispatched from fictitious firms and meant for fictitious firms.

The Lusitania

One such shipment of munitions is going across the Atlantic in the holds of the passenger ship Lusitania.

The Lusitania is much more than a passenger ship. Once the fastest ship to make the Atlantic crossing, she was designed from the outset to be an armed merchant cruiser in time of war and has gun mounts (though no actual guns) hidden under coils of ropes on her deck. Almost her entire cargo is contraband, but as usual, disguised as "fur", etc. She also carries over a thousand passengers (this is 1915 and travelling to a country at war for a holiday or on business isn't unusual), including 139 Americans.

Meanwhile, Americans of German ethnic origin are well aware of the Wilson government's attempts to propagandise the people into a war mood. They realise that if a British ship carrying Americans is sunk, and Americans in large numbers are killed, it's going to play into the hands of the pro-war party. The next such ship to sail is the Lusitania, and they issue, post-haste, an advertisement in it in the name of the German embassy cautioning passengers from travelling in British ships in a war zone. The advert ultimately appears only in one paper - ironically right next to another advert, this one of the Lusitania sailing.

Although the advert does cause some disquiet, not many actually cancel their passage on the ship.

The Lusitania sails on 1 May 1915. As a wartime economy measure one of her boiler rooms is shut down, thus limiting her top speed. It still is much faster than any sub can manage, though.


Meanwhile, the U-boats are active off the west coast of Ireland. One such boat is the U 20, commanded by Kapitšnleutnant Walther Schwieger, a slightly ruthless character who has a habit of attacking ships (including a hospital ship on one occasion) without warning. In Schwieger's defence, though, it might be said that on his previous patrol his sub had been damaged in a ramming attempt, and therefore he is naturally not inclined to risk his command in glorious Cruiser Rules engagements.

Over the course of his patrol, Schwieger attacks and sinks several ships, all off the west coast of Ireland, in an area which is directly in the path of the Lusitania. Among his victims are two merchant ships which he torpedoes without warning. However, apart from a general message warning of submarine activity, Captain Turner of the Lusitania is given no information whatever about the activities of the U 20. And, although the Royal Navy cruiser Juno is ordered to act as escort, she is suddenly ordered to port, leaving the Lusitania to steam into danger, at below her top speed, unwarned and unescorted.

Short of fuel and running out of torpedoes, Schwieger decides to make for home, and turns northwards. On the afternoon of 7 May, his course brings him into sight of the Lusitania, and he submerges and prepares to attack. He gets into position and fires a single torpedo into her starboard (right) side.

The sinking

German torpedoes of this period - we are in 1915, remember - are noted for their unreliability. Sometimes they run wild, sometimes they fail to explode. Schwieger himself has little faith in them, and he is astonished at what happens when his shot strikes the British ship behind the bridge. Here is what he dictates to his log as he watches the effect of his torpedo through the periscope:

German submarine U 20

Submarine U 20 of the German Empire's navy

View image

2.10pm. Clean bowshot at 700 metres range, angle of intersection 90 degrees, estimated speed 22 knots. Torpedo hits starboard side right behind the bridge. An unusually heavy detonation takes place with a very strong explosion cloud (far beyond front funnel). The explosion of the torpedo must have been followed by a second one (boiler or coal or powder?). The superstructure above the point of impact and the bridge are torn asunder, fire breaks out and smoke envelops the high bridge. The ship stops immediately and heels over to starboard quickly, immersing simultaneously at the bow. It appears as if the ship is going to capsize very shortly. Great confusion on board; the boats are made ready and some of them lowered into the water. Apparently considerable panic; some boats, full to capacity, are rushed from above, touch the water with either stem or stern first, and founder immediately.

2.25pm. Since it seems as if the steamer can only remain afloat a short while longer, dive to 24 metres and head out to sea. I could not have launched a second torpedo into that struggling throng of humanity trying to save their lives.

Schwieger's torpedo holes the side of the Lusitania's hull and lets in water, flooding the longitudinal bunkers, but it does not sink the ship. What sinks the ship is something else - a massive explosion in one of the forward cargo compartments, that blows out such a large part of the hull that the 45,000 tonne liner goes down in just eighteen minutes. Due to a design weakness, hardly any of the lifeboats can be launched. The casualty list is horrifying - 1,198 people drown, including 128 of the 139 Americans on board, and not one of whom is not a civilian. What the cause of the explosion that sinks the Lusitania is a matter of conjecture: is it the coal powder in her holds, or is it her alleged cargo of "fur" and "cheese"?

The British cruiser Juno is steaming towards the site of the sinking when she is recalled to port by the British authorities - even though she is within sight of the survivors in the water. Meanwhile, the U 20 and Kapitšnleutnant Schwieger have long since headed out to sea.

Precisely as feared by the German-Americans, the sinking of the Lusitania is projected as a vicious piratical attack in the US media, all mention of the illegal cargo is suppressed or denied, and it serves as the beginning of a campaign that leads to the US entering the war two years later.

I'm not saying the Lusitania was deliberately sacrificed. But there is little reason to assume that her sinking could not have been avoided; and her sinking was exploited, to the full.

The Lusitania starts to sink
The Lusitania listing to starboard and towards the bow


Main Sources

Hanson, David - The Sinking of the Lusitania, Virginia Western Community College, 2008



Images and text copyright © Bill Purkayastha. An original feature for the History Files.